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Sasco has vital role to play in changing higher education

Date Released: Sun, 12 June 2005 09:02 +0200

DURING the 1990-1994 period of political liberalisation and negotiations leading to the first democratic elections, the South African Students' Congress (Sasco) continued the tradition of militant student politics of Saso and Sansco.
However, in the past decade there have been important changes in political conditions that have affected the politics and activities of Sasco.

First, whereas previously who and what was the "enemy" that stood in the way of education and freedom was fairly clear, today it is not.

It is therefore not as easy to mobilise and organise students as it was before 1994.

Secondly, while some students have ongoing problems around financing and fee exclusions, and concerns regarding aspects of the mergers of institutions, many students don't appear to have much interest in important higher education issues at institutional and national levels, or in crucial political and social issues.

Some suggest that Sasco and other organisations have not been politically creative, organisationally innovative, or determined enough. Perhaps, but the reality remains that student mobilisation is much more difficult today than in the past and that student organisations are weaker and less rooted among students today than previously.

Thirdly, in the period of mass opposition politics during the 1970s and 1980s, Saso and Sansco didn't need to formulate concrete alternatives to apartheid. They could be satisfied with general ideas of freedom and demands such as a South Africa based on the Freedom Charter, in which "the people shall govern", and in which "the doors of learning and culture shall be opened to all".

In the post-1994 era of transformation politics, however, Sasco would exclude itself from the change process if its contribution were to merely restate the education and other ideals of the Freedom Charter. This means that Sasco has to engage with the complex and difficult problems and challenges of higher education change.

It should be clear that while student organisations and activists may have operated under dangerous and harsh conditions before 1990, politics was also in some ways much simpler. Sasco and post-1994 student activists face a much more complex and difficult social reality and much more formidable challenges.

Sasco has attempted to address policy issues related to the transformation of higher education and institutions, but with limited success. Effective policy engagement entails addressing many difficult questions - the social purposes and role of higher education in South Africa; the ideal institutional landscape; appropriate transformation frameworks and policies; effective mechanisms and instruments for change, and for creating a higher education system that contributes to social equity, justice, economic development and democracy.

This a tall order for any student political organisation, especially since transformation politics involves profoundly difficult policy issues, political dilemmas and choices in a context of resource constraints and trade-offs between dearly held principles and values. It should be hardly surprising, then, that Sasco has not been able to make any easy transition from a mode of opposition politics to a politics of transformation.

Sasco must, of course, try to make this transition and must be supported to do so. But if it does not do so optimally, this is no reason to marginalise it. Government and institutions must value the role and contribution of student organisations, respect their autonomy, and must hear their legitimate claims and consider these as part of political and policy decision making.

Transformation politics cannot be a concern only with affordability and means but must also address ends and legitimate expectations. There is no contradiction in a student organisation that both genuinely co-operates to find answers to problems and challenges, but also vigorously protests to draw attention to shortcomings and legitimate demands and needs.

Whereas in the early 1990s the major national youth and women's organisations became part of the ANC, Sasco significantly opted to remain independent. It pledged support for the ANC and the new ANC-led government, but also voiced its intention to advance student interests and, if necessary, to adopt a critical disposition towards the ANC and the policies of the new government. This means Sasco cannot shy away from holding government to the idea that the doors to higher education learning must be opened.

There have been many achievements in access and equity. Today, some 75 percent of students in higher education are black and 54 percent women. Thousands of poor students are supported financially by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

However, black men and women enrolments mask inequalities in their distribution across academic programmes and especially at higher levels of post-graduate training.

It is true that for most South Africans who may aspire to a higher education, the doors of learning remain firmly bolted, with currently little prospect of entry. It is also a reality that for a sizeable number who obtain access, the door, rather than being fully open, is a revolving one, since too many drop out and don't graduate.

The doors that lead to real learning, to becoming highly educated, and to graduating with real knowledge, competencies and skills, and as socially committed and critical citizens are all too often either closed or ajar only all too little. Too often there is also a confusion of certification with meaningful education. Only for some are the doors of higher learning truly open.

It is right for Sasco to ask why the doors of higher learning are bolted or only partially open, and for it to insist that the doors must be opened much wider. It is Sasco's obligation to point out that the current investment in NSFAS is inadequate and that more must be done to provide real opportunities to talented students from working class and rural poor families.

There is unfinished business in higher education and in South Africa. Our history teaches that nothing is gained without struggle. Sasco has a vital role to play in mobilising and educating for a transformed higher education, for social equity, justice and the deepening of democracy.